I always paid my debts. Before I decided to go to college, I consolidated all my credit card debts into a personal loan my father helped me get and paid it off in one year. I was debt free, for a while. My father paid for my undergraduate degree and for the first year of my master’s program. Then I was on my own. That was okay, though, because by then I had been filing my own tax returns and was financially independent, so I qualified for financial aid. I also worked for the college as a Graduate Assistant and that got me a monthly stipend and tuition waiver. I lived a frugal life throughout my graduate programs. I ate mostly rice, popcorn, spaghetti, bread, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Meat was off the menu since it is more expensive than bananas, apples and broccoli. I was pretty thin all through college. I was really happy, though, because I loved learning, I loved teaching, and I believed that what I was doing was good for our communities, our society. Progress and innovation comes on the heels of a good education, after all. I was part of the “good education” team to help our next generation innovate and create the next great gadget.
As I said, I lived frugally, but I still had to use credit cards to make ends meet. I did have to buy clothes once in a while. I needed a haircut sometimes, too—although, I admit to just cutting the split ends with my office scissors most of the time. And yes, sometimes, I just splurged and bought myself something I probably shouldn’t have, like the electric piano so I could get back to playing in my spare time. Oh well, at least I finally learned to play “Moonlight Sonata”—that must be good for something.
After a few years of graduate work, though, I stopped getting free financial aid—I maxed out and had to resort to student loans through the government. When I finally finished my Ph.D., I had about $98,000 in student loan debts and about $3,000 in credit card debts. I did not think this was too unreasonable because I anticipated getting a good job in academia doing what I loved, teaching, and making a decent income that would allow me to pay off my debt in 3 to 4 years—I planned on living as frugally as I had been to pay it off. I knew that if I made $50,000 a year, I could live off of $30,000 and use the rest to pay my debt. No problem because, as a graduate student, I was use to living off of $15,000 a year.
Then came the first recession. Yes folks, this recession did not just start 5 years ago. It started more like 20 years ago. Most people did not notice what was happening because those of us in academia live in some weird kind of other dimension from the rest of the nation. However, this is what has been happening to your public school system starting with kindergarten and going all the way to university. You see, public education is a huge drain on the government and many people do not like to pay for someone else’s education. So, budget cuts to public education ensued. Mostly, higher education was left untouched for a while, but then the hammer hit. When the first wave of budget cuts came, the university turned to its graduate students to fill those classrooms, both as students and as low wage teachers. When the administrators saw how much that helped their budgets, they started highering more and more part-time teachers and fewer and fewer full-time teachers. When a department would lose three full-timers to retirement or relocation, they would only be allowed to higher one full-timer and then 4 to 6 part-timers would be highered to fill in the rest. This is the workforce I became part of. My big dream of getting out of debt was, initially, put off until I could land that dream full-time gig, which I believed I would get in no more than 5 years, tops. Afterall, I had jumped through every hoop; I was published, I had a research agenda, I did postdoc work at a super respectable private university, I even taught over seas. What didn’t I do to pad my resume?
Fast forward 10 years. I’m still teaching part-time. I have no benefits, my $98,000 student loan is now $101,000. and my credit card debt is at $35,000. I have no savings, my retirement, after working 10 years as a teacher in higher education is at about $17,000. I pay for my own medical insurance, I drive a 20 year old car because I can’t afford the monthly payments on a new car, or the insurance, or the registration that accompany a new car.
I also have two kids. Even though my plans for paying off my debt failed, I would not allow debt to control all my life decisions. So, I willing brought kids into my life, knowing full well that it would only worsen my fiscal problems. My husband and I divorced a few years ago, and I think our mounting debt and the stress it caused us is partly or mostly to blame for our failed marriage. We have no money for their future college education and I know that, as of today, if my employment situation does not change, I will not be able to help them with tuition. They will be forced to get financial aid and then student loans when the free aid runs out, which it will. They will have to depend on credit cards to make ends meet. They will have debt in the amount of $50,000 or more by the time they are 24 years young.
I refuse to allow my kids to fall prey to this broken and destructive monetary system we are living in. We have decided to leave the U.S., and even abandon some of our debt in order to allow our children and ourselves to live a good life, a life without the burden and enslavement of debt. We never wanted to be rich. I never imagined myself in a big house with a big yard and all new appliances, granite counters, tile floors, etc. I am still frugal and modest in my lifestyle, but even a frugal life style seems to be out of reach for us. This is not the kind of world I want my kids to live in. It must change. I leave you all with a stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.